Murder In Blue

Written by Clifford Witting

Review written by LJ Hurst

Initially, L. J. Hurst worked in the backrooms of the media industry. He now divides his time between work for an international scientific publisher and a rather more British independent bookseller. In years past he was a regular attendee at the Shots on the Page Festivals from whence Shots Mag sprung

Murder In Blue
Galileo Publishing
RRP: £8.99
Released: October 7 2021

Do you recognise these words written in 1952: “The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then the soul-erosion produced by high gambling – a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension – becomes unbearable and the senses awake and revolt from it”? They are from Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale.

It is often suggested they were inspired by a flying visit he made to a Portuguese gambling house during WWII. That may be true for the event, but for the description perhaps Ian Fleming had been reading ten years earlier: “I do not care much for the second house at a music hall. The place seems stale. The smell of cheap tobacco smoke lingers and the floor is littered with crumpled cellophane and toffee-papers”. Those are words Fleming might have encountered two-thirds of the way through the book that began Clifford Witting’s crime writing career, Murder In Blue, published in 1942, and now re-issued by Galileo. The tone is a lot lower on the social scale, but then murder is not limited to the upper classes alone, and too soon after narrator John Rutherford’s account of his theatrical visit another murder is to shock his southern town.

This is not the first time I have read Murder In Blue, though my last reading was a long time ago and, in fact, I had forgotten the plot. There is a love story intertwined which I found twee on first reading but not this time, so my rating can only go higher. Some of the events of the story seem very obvious – narrator finds body of murdered police officer, narrator is diverted and nearly murdered several times, original murder is followed by at least one more – yet Witting’s literary legerdemain means that we ignore, and where we cannot ignore – forgive, these otherwise tired old tropes as he diverts our attention to other matters.

The first victim is a constable who has been brained while on night patrol. The attack has been made easier by Downshire police uniforms involving a cap, not a helmet (something that had happened in Northern Ireland and most of Scotland before the First World War), and uniforms are to be an important part of the plot, even to the question of whether the officer and a suspect were in uniform or simply wearing uniform-like rain-capes; later on, turn-ups on trousers (who realised that police officers could be identified in the Golden Age by the absence of turn-ups from their trousers?), and the position of the constabulary number on the jacket collar, will all come into question.

Detective-Inspector Charlton is constantly asking Rutherford to recall everything he found at the murder scene, and insists that – given the murderer is obviously a cunning and Machiavellian planner – even a tiny detail could provide the lead to solve the case. Again, Witting’s ability to make Rutherford an honest reporter even while he does not provide or note those details, moves the mystery along. Equally, and because as I mentioned I had forgotten the plot, I found myself suspecting completely the wrong character who frequently managed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. On the other hand (clue here, to would-be readers) observe the description of the sail-like canvas towards the end of the story and ask yourself who would notice the missing lanyard and ask why.

Murder In Blue is fascinating reading for we who like a record of social attitudes. Narrator Rutherford is a public-school man (he’s 34, and the year must be 1937, by my reckoning, though the first chapter is dated Sunday November 10th, which puts it in 1935), who was too young to fight in the Great War; he has a small income that makes him independent but he has decided to work his way by opening a bookshop that doubles (as did many at the time) as a lending library. By charging a very high subscription he has kept out the riff-raff, nabbed some of the local gentry, and consequently drawn in those who wish to be seen following in Lady Shawford’s footsteps. Rutherford happily admits that this is snobbery. Within the town (it’s a small town a few miles inland of a seaside resort such as Newhaven or Eastbourne) Rutherford happily mixes with the best of the working classes – he already knows the local police sergeant socially, and plays billiards with such men. As a public-school man, though, he has no attraction to Association Football – it has none of the spirt of the rugger played at his school – and thinks little of the spectators at such matches. Still, Witting manages to work his plot, such that Rutherford does attend a match and makes contact with a potential witness, when he does overcome his own objections.

Meanwhile, the social element works itself out in other ways: for a small town, Rutherford discovers that quite a few of his old school fellows are also resident, even if some of them fail to make their presence known as they have gone to the bad and had to change their names, or found themselves in occupations school did not lead them to expect. And all of these are plot points, too. On the other hand, it is not obvious if it is Witting’s or Rutherford’s lack of sympathy for the final victim, who is (not a public-school man but is) managing to turn his life around before his death, that is due to class snobbery. But snobbery in the attitude there certainly is.

Several of Witting’s books involve abnormal psychology in the murderer – in the motive if not in the planning – and it seems to have started in this, his first. Perhaps it was just coincidence that Ian Fleming’s super-villains combined those two elements with Witting’s, but when Inspector Charlton reveals the murderer’s motive, and given the description of the first victim’s character, the combination clicks. Galileo have published at least three of Witting’s books – I recommend them because re-reading Murder In Blue, I found it clicked.

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